Talking Comics with Tim: Dave Astor

2008 will not be remembered as the year of the editorial cartoonist. From 1983 to late October 2008, any development in the editorial cartooning or comics syndicate market was noted and thoroughly covered by Editor & Publisher Senior Editor Dave Astor. Unfortunately, just like the 12 or more staff cartoonists that lost their job in 2008, Astor was one of 20 employees let go by Nielsen (E&P's owner) in late October. Widely respected in the industry (as evidenced by the collective reaction to Astor's departure), Astor struck me as a great person to interview in order to put the 2008 editorial cartoonist/comics syndicate market in a proper perspective.

Astor was associate editor and then senior editor of Editor & Publisher from 1983 to 2008. He covered newspaper syndication, cartooning, column-writing, and more for E&P's print magazine, Web site, and blog. In 2006, Astor received the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists' Ink Bottle Award for his cartooning coverage over the years. He also helped E&P win two Neal Awards for stories about newspaper coverage of the Iraq War.

Astor has also been a columnist for The Montclair (N.J.) Times from 2003 to the present. His weekly "Montclairvoyant" feature humorously comments on local and national news in a mock-Q&A format. "Montclairvoyant" helped the Times win two editorial-page awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

During his time at E&P, Astor also drew freelance gag cartoons published in several magazines. That was from 1997 to 2003, before starting his Times column.

My thanks to Astor for his valuable time and perspective.

Tim O'Shea: Around this time last year, were you thinking that 2008 would be a year of so many buyouts and firings for editorial cartoonists?Dave Astor: I knew there would be editorial cartoonist buyouts and firings in 2008, but didn't know there would be so many. During a four-day span in November 2008, three cartoonists were told they were being let go -- an astounding number given that there are only 80 or so full-time staff cartoonists left in the country. A dozen or so staff cartoonists lost their jobs in 2008.

O'Shea: What do you think about so many cartoonists being let go?

Astor: It's awful. First of all, when a newspaper gets rid of its only cartoonist, that's a 100% staff reduction in that category (as opposed to, say, a 20% staff reduction when a paper lets go two of its 10 sportswriters). Secondly, cartoons are one of the most-read parts of a newspaper; human beings like visual stuff! Thirdly, even newspapers that replace staff cartoons with syndicated cartoons are losing important local commentary.

O'Shea: Why are so many newspapers getting rid of their cartoonists?

Astor: They're saving a salary. Also, some papers don't want a strong local cartooning voice because local cartoons can anger local political and business bigwigs (some of whom the publisher might be playing golf with!). And some papers don't want to deal with reader complaints about a cartoon -- even if those calls and e-mails represent only a tiny percentage of their circulation. Unfortunately, the more than 90% of readers who might like or love a cartoon often don't contact the paper to say that.

O'Shea: You've covered editorial cartoonists and syndication since 1983 -- in that time how many economic downturns and industry downsizings have you witnessed?

Astor: Maybe three or four -- including the one just after 9/11 and the current one. (The current one is sort of a continuation of the just-after-9/11 one, only much worse).

But even though there have been some relatively good economic periods during the past 25 years, there has been a pretty steady decline in the number of daily U.S. papers. And the number of big syndicates has declined, too, because of mergers.

O'Shea: With the newspaper industry continuing to downsize, what adjustments do you think the syndicates are going to need to make in general?

Astor: A number of syndicates are already making their content available on various non-print platforms, such as iPhones and other devices. Syndicates and their parent companies also continue to generate revenue in other ways not directly tied to newspapers. For instance, Universal Press Syndicate sister division Andrews McMeel Publishing does well with comic collections and other books, and entities such as United Media Licensing earn a lot of money with merchandising. O'Shea: Do you see an increasingly elevated profile for webcomics as the use of iPhones and other portable Internet products grow in market presence?

Astor: Yes (though comics known mostly for their print presence are and will be featured on portable devices, too). There are a lot of great webcomics out there.

O'Shea: Savvy journalists have learned to adapt with changes in technology, some have reinvented themselves in the past several years. In 2009, do you have any idea how unemployed editorial cartoonists will find a voice -- be it with newspapers or another outlet?

Astor: Unemployed editorial cartoonists will find a voice doing cartoons posted on Web sites (including their own sites and sites featuring multiple cartoonists), doing cartoons for alternative weeklies, doing cartoons for syndication, etc. But while they'll still have a voice, most will NOT make a living as an editorial cartoonist without a staff cartoonist job. So some will do freelance illustration, or children's books, or maybe get a non-artistic day job. I should also mention that a number of staff editorial cartoonists who adapted to changes in technology -- doing blogs, animation, etc. -- got laid off anyway. O'Shea: In 2008, despite adversity in the market overall, did you see some success stories -- be it in editorial cartooning or syndication?

Astor: A number of editorial cartoonists did great 2008 work with hard-hitting commentary, color, and/or animation. When it comes to content and the art, this might be a golden age for editorial cartooning. When it comes to jobs, this is a nightmare age for editorial cartooning.

Meanwhile, a handful of less-than-10-year-old comics gained a lot of newspaper clients in 2008. They include Pearls Before Swine, Lio, Cul de Sac, The Argyle Sweater, and others. I'm sure I'm leaving some out, so sorry about that.

The comics field has problems, such as shrinking newspaper space. But there are also positive developments, including more comics by women and cartoonists of color (though the field remains mostly white male). It's also good that newspaper comics have become a little less staid (somewhat more sociopolitical commentary, somewhat more candid language, etc.). But too many comics still have kind of a 1950s mentality. One reason for this is the presence of a number of long-running, past-their-prime comics -- including "legacy" strips no longer done by their original creators. These comics limit the newspaper space for more-contemporary comics by younger cartoonists.O'Shea: 2008 was also the year that Berkeley Breathed brought an end to Opus. Did Breathed end as strong as he started? Who is the new Berkeley Breathed?

Astor: Opus was a wonderfully drawn comic with writing/humor that was great some weeks and not so great other weeks. As Breathed brought the comic to an end this fall, some of the final episodes were excellent and moving. But I and most other comics readers would say Breathed's Bloom County strip was much better overall than Opus. One reason for that: Bloom County was daily and Sunday, so Breathed and readers got into a real rhythm with it. Opus was Sunday-only.

As far as I know, "the new Berkeley Breathed" will continue doing children's books, among other things.

O'Shea: Do you think in the final analysis that Lynn Johnston built a larger audience or diminished it with the ever-changing status as to when and how she was ending the new content on For Better or For Worse?

Astor: The audience was probably diminished somewhat by all that. But even if the transition had gone more smoothly, FBorFW would have lost some of its audience because it wasn't going to contain all-new material any more. That said, it remains one of the most widely syndicated comics.

As of the summer of 2008, FBorFW had more than 2,000 clients (I don't know the current total). The only other comics with 2,000-plus newspapers, I believe, are Garfield, Dilbert, Blondie, and reruns of Peanuts.

O'Shea: Upon hearing about your E&P departure, cartoonist Guy Gilchrist said: "I truly hope that this is God opening another, brightly colored, and richly rewarding door." Have you come upon that rewarding door yet, or are you content strolling the aisles of a metaphorical Home Depot -- considering your door choices?

Astor: I guess I'm still strolling the aisles of my metaphorical local hardware store (I try to avoid shopping at big places like Home Depot!)

O'Shea: Since 2003 you've written a topical humor column for The Montclair (N.J.) Times, do you hope to do more humor writing in the future? Did having the column to still do ease the pain of leaving E&P at all?

Astor: Yes, having the column has eased the pain of my cost-cutting layoff from E&P. I love writing humor. A couple of things I've been working on since being let go in October involve humor writing. I'd rather not mention what those things are yet, because they might not work out and then I'd be embarrassed about prematurely mentioning them! I'm also thinking about a couple non-humor projects. And I might end up in a full-time media job again -- if there are any out there in these rotten economic times! O'Shea: Do you dare to try to look ahead and try to predict trends for 2009 and beyond for syndication and editorial cartoonists?

Astor: I guess you can take the bad and good trends I mentioned earlier in this interview and say they will probably continue in 2009. Actually, maybe the bad trends will be more of a factor because I think things will get worse before they possibly get better for the economy and newspapers. One piece of bad '09 news could unfortunately be more layoffs of editorial cartoonists.

Tim, thank you very much for your great questions and your interest in interviewing me!

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